:::this is the way the world ends:::

The Moral Animal and a Question for Toby… or Free At Last.

I finished the Moral Animal. It is a great book, and I recommed it to any of the Hollow Men that want to tackle a broad survey of evolution, psychology, and philosophy.

I definitely admonish people to do what Shotts apparently had to do with the HP books and persevere through lengthy exposition (except in this case we can’t say Wright could have used a good editor, because apparently he is one). At times Wright will seem to be completely self-indulging in his hypothetical arguments, but keep reading – it all comes around. I feel that early in the book I could have skipped large sections, though I’m glad I didn’t.

I would like to thank J.E. for his recommendation, it has given me new insight into life (somewhat like Peters’ NVC recommendation). And I feel I do understand some of the formative influences on J.E.’s outlook and this makes me happy, as well as Peters’. And I have thoroughly enjoyed the recommendations from Shotts as well.

There is so much in the book that I can’t really respond to everything it covers (it kind of covers everything), but I am in primary agreement with most of Wright’s assertions, though that may be a misleading statement without qualifications. He is a generous mind, an attribute I would also ascribe to Stephen J Gould.

What I find extremely funny is that, in making his argument, Wright often brings up many of the exact issues we covered on the blog discussion, right down to actually comparing the characters of Mother Teresa and Donald Trump which I brought up in the earlier discussion with Peters. Wright also has a section in the back that specifically addresses the example of a soldier falling on a grenade which was also raised.

Both books do support the idea that humans are basically selfish (which is what Liz said, but I couldn’t discern if this was meant in a hopeless sense or a self-awareness sense), as well as self-serving, though not necessarily that everything we do we do to serve our own needs. Both books also encourage individuals to be conscious of this and why we are primarily self-serving, in order to resist this reality.

I would love to discuss the book further, but the blog, sadly, will simply not suffice for the depth of conversation needed. If you want to call me sometime, J.E., I’d love to chat with you about it or anyone else that reads it. I would say that if you were to reread the last eighty pages, from page 313 on to the end, you would see that with the Berger and Weil quotes I posted earlier we were never as far apart as was felt (at least as far apart as was felt by me at the time, if not you). You used the word freewill in a recent blog and this would make for an interesting discussion too.

My question for Toby is… “Got a recommendation?”


  1. J.E.

    It has been over 10 years since I read The Moral Animal. When I find that volume again I’ll be able to have a better discussion with you about it. Although I don’t think this should preclude our discussion. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve incorporated a lot of material from The Moral Animal into daily thought. I’ll try to give you a call before the Fall semester starts.

    My latest science and meaning book that I’ve picked up is The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos by Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams. I’ve just started it so I don’t have much to say about it. But the website is good. If you have an hour of time I highly recommend the Quicktime video.


  2. Tobias

    Ned, first and foremost, thanks for being the torch-bearer on the web site for the past couple of weeks. Even though things have been quiet, I’ve been *quietly* impressed and reading avidly your additions. You deserve a Hollow Man merit badge, if we had those sorts of things.

    I look forward to answering your question soon. However, I don’t have any picks that I’d recommend to the group at present. I have been reading, as of late, at night before bed and it usually consists of guilty pleasures. I think I am going to pick up “Life is a Miracle” by Wendell Berry again. I read it when it came out and it became one of my favorite books. When J.E. mentioned it, I wanted to read it again (and the notes I scrawled in the margins). It’s mostly to see in what way I am the same person I was seven years ago, and how I am different. That child was the father of this man….

    I did finish “The Brief History of the Dead” and would love to discuss that here with everyone else who has read it. If there’s still someone in the group who is intending on reading it and wants to stay away from spoilers, let us know. I’ll try to mark any spolier comments as such.

    I liked “Brief History” but it fell apart in the end a little for me. I loved the idea of this concrete world on the other side of death — while we’re still remembered. The end got a little metaphysical and psychadelic for me, when I had gotten used to the established rules of the afterlife. It’s as if the opaque nature of death was somehow repeated in the next life…and the idea of it in this life is enough for me. It’s a mild critique in the grand scheme of things. However, I did largely glaze over the last two chapters because it was hard to hang on to anything.

    One pleasant side-effect, I found myself shivering despite the summer hotness, because of the descriptions of the trials of Antartica. I’d recommend, but am looking forward to moving on to “Out Stealing Horses.”

  3. Shotts

    Good to see Toby on the blog with a good message. I haven’t read The Moral Animal, but would like to, from what everyone says about it. Same for Non-Violent Communication. Ned probably gets the prize not only for keeping the blog lively but also for reading others’ recommendations in a timely way. Though I did read some 4,000+ pages of Harry Potter this summer in the same spirit…

    Toby, I agree with your comments about The Brief History of the Dead, in a lot of ways. I think the most brilliant thing about it is perhaps the first four chapters or so, where we start understanding the concept of The City and also what is going on on Earth. The concept of the book probably, in the end, outweighs the book itself, which is to say that I agree that the end felt more obvious or inevitable than a real change. I read the whole book as more or less an extended metaphor or set of metaphors for the way memory works. And I guess at the end of the book, when there’s no one else to remember anything, the point is that there’s no more existence. Existence is memory; memory is existence, in Brockmeier’s terms. So while I was first sort of horrified at the idea of the afterlife being more or less the same as it is in the here and now, I think it made sense, given that the dead only exist in the understanding of the living. And also, while I was disappointed that we don’t really get to see what happens after one disappears from The City, that also makes sense given that there is no existence after the capability for memory is killed. Do you agree?

    I don’t mean to turn this into a larger discussion about The Brief History of the Dead, when Ned wanted discussion on The Moral Animal, however. But Toby’s comments were too interesting not to respond to.

    I also have noted that basically no one has responded to my posting about Harry Potter and, in particular, Book 7. But so be it. Maybe it’s time to move on.

    I do hope you read Out Stealing Horses, Tob. The fifth printing has just shipped, so there should be no reason it is not available at any bookstore or online outlet. To me, it’s the book of the year, most likely. I also recommend Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero–especially as I recall the morality of The English Patient was a hot topic among this group, once upon a time. I also recommend Carl Phillips’s Quiver of Arrows: Selected Poems, and also C.D. Wright’s poetic investigation of Louisiana prisons, titled One Big Self.

  4. Tobias

    Jeff — thanks for your thoughtful response, and sorry it has taken me so long to post a reponse in turn.

    Your response increases my respect for the “Brief History.” I still think I have some reservations about the effectiveness of the ending structure and the style of writing, and how they leave the concrete sculpting of abstract concepts behind.

    I agree that this does make sense “given that there is no existence after the capability for memory is killed.” And that statement has enriched my understanding of the book immensely (thank you). I believe the hook that I was proverbially “hanging my hat on” that led to some dissatisfaction was the quote Brockmeier placed at the beginning of the novel. The quote seemed to be the genesis of the concept at the center of the novel, and instructed my reading of it. However, I kept expecting to be taken into the third stage of life (zamani). After having concretely bridged the first two stages of existence (life, sasha) in alternating chapters I was anticipating the glimpse of the last stage, hopeful in the reuniting or merging of humanity.

    Ah, but I suppose my viewpoint as a christian also instructs the desire for a different ending, but I bring that with me and can’t discard — so I still wind up a little sad, scratchy and hollow at the end. But, like I said above, I do appreciate the viewpoint but I wish I could have been carried into it a little bit more.

    One thing I didn’t discuss before: I love how Coca-Cola is the vehicle for the fall of humanity on planet earth. And I’m a Coke fan. Now I feel like I am drinking something a little more sinister when I go to the soda fountain 🙂

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